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“Treated like imbeciles”

May 28, 2012 1507

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Aditya Chakrabortty’s recent piece in the Guardian was especially irksome as he is one of the few journalists to regularly draw on and discuss social science research in his column. While parts of the article were sensible and informed, its central claim was unfair – that social science disciplines have been unable or unwilling to explore, explain, and confront the ‘Great Financial Crash’ of 2007-9.  Many academics have responded by pointing to the huge outpouring of research and writing that has addressed this very theme (including numerous special conferences and events). Moreover, the multiple failures of banks, regulators and ‘expert’ knowledge exposed by the GFC seem to justify the long-held views of many researchers who adopt critical or politically progressive approaches. Management failures are distressingly commonplace and the GFC is an extremely powerful reminder of this fact.

My particular field (sociology of work and organization studies) is strongly motivated by the need to explore such ‘dark sides’ of management. Much of this work highlights the often unpleasant frontline realities of working life, especially people’s everyday interpretations of restructured workplaces. One recent example that impressed me greatly was a paper by Bob Carter and colleagues published in New Technology, Work and Employment, volume 26, issue 2. It described and explained disastrous mismanagement at HM Revenue & Customs – an organization apparently in some disarray. Employee interviews and questionnaires depict widespread exasperation and anger, such as the excerpt below:

“I used to have great pride in the job. […] I felt like I made a difference to people’s lives […]

I dealt with the same individuals for years and I built up a rapport with them. Now I feel like a cog in a machine. The standard of work at HMRC is now desperately poor. There is no taking responsibility any more. The job is so fragmented that no one cares about the whole picture, just their little bit. This feeling is encouraged by senior management pressuring us to complete so many tasks an hour. We never see the finished product. Senior management use statistics to lie to us to pretend things have improved. We are treated like imbeciles.” (page 90)

One can imagine similar resentment and dismay built up by dismal organizational cultures at other failing institutions such as RBS, Lehman Brothers, or AIG. This paper is a good example of the kind of critical research on management failures that Chakrabortty suggests does not exist.

Nevertheless his column indirectly raised the issue of the failure of critical social science to reach wider audiences. Too much of academia is effectively aimed at an audience of itself – written by and for fellow academics (journal editors, reviewers and readers). Too much of it doesn’t even reach students, never mind the wider world. The academic enterprise performs an ever larger feedback loop, yet the output typically reverberates inwards in the form of narrow territorial disputes, rather than outwards in terms of enlightening the wider social world.  A few superstars do well (in some cases assisted by literary agents). Their work reaches large audiences in Sunday supplements, radio appearances and well-marketed, slender, and affordable volumes. But the work of the everyday honest toilers of the ivory tower usually goes woefully unnoticed.

I can think of no easy answers to this problem. Ironically, the communication failure is perhaps at least partly due to precisely the kinds of organizational malaise I described earlier. Although the work is often rewarding and interesting, academic employment seems cursed by task overload and dysfunctional organizational cultures. Universities, like elsewhere in the private and public sectors, are increasingly characterised by alienating systems of targets, ‘lean thinking’, KPI ‘dashboards’, Personal Development Plans, and ‘shared visions’. Look at the UCU website, for example. It reveals deep staff resentment about ongoing ‘restructurings’ at numerous universities, which often makes unsettling reading:

Successfully engaging with wider audiences while simultaneously coping with work overload and ceaseless organizational disruption is a difficult task indeed.
Dr Leo McCann

Manchester Business School

University of Manchester

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